District concealed email critical of superintendent

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District concealed email critical of superintendent

Letter: Truesdale distributed email to administrators despite asserting it was 'private'
By JEFF KIDD and MIKE McCOMBS
jkidd@beaufortgazette.com, mmccombs@islandpacket.com
Published Saturday, August 4, 2012   |  1666 Words  |  

Jim Foster said he had sifted through hundreds of innocuous messages in the email box of Hilton Head Island High School's athletics director when he came across one that floored him.

The message, sent May 11 from Mark Karen to his principal, Amanda O'Nan, included a letter in which the athletics director accused Beaufort County School District superintendent Valerie Truesdale of dishonesty and concealing information.

Foster, the director of school and community relations, was reviewing Karen's account to fulfill a public-records request from The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. He showed the message to Truesdale, who Karen had accused of lying to the media and interfering in the discipline of Tim Singleton, Hilton Head High's former football coach. The superintendent said she was disappointed to read Karen's assertions but decided to let Foster fill the records request on his own and recuse herself from the process.

Then Foster went to Karen.

According to the athletics director, a perturbed Foster asked him: "Did you want the newspaper to have this? Is that why you put it in an email?"

Karen said he didn't answer.

But Foster returned several days later with a stack of emails and a blue highlighter pen. He asked Karen -- on the advice of district attorneys, Foster says -- to mark any that he considered private. Karen put a big, blue X and his initials on his critical letter.

On July 26, the district provided the newspapers with 67 printed pages of emails, most of them about job offers Karen had received from other school districts.

But the email sharply criticizing Truesdale wasn't among them.

That omission likely violated the state's Freedom of Information Act, according S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender: "I can think of no legitimate reason this email could have been excluded," he said.

District officials say they withheld the email because disclosing it would have violated Karen's privacy. Bender counters that, according to the law and legal precedent, public employees cannot expect privacy when discussing a public employee's performance with a public email account. Further, the opinion of the sender or recipient of such a message has no bearing on whether it can legally be exempted from a records request.

Karen contends the district withheld the message simply because it was embarrassing to Truesdale.

EMAILS FOCUS OF DISTRICT DEBATE

By the time the district responded to the newspapers' public-records request, the Packet and Gazette already had obtained two copies of the email from other sources. In the email, Karen explained to O'Nan that he probably wouldn't return for a second season with the Seahawks' because he was frustrated with the district. He also told O'Nan what it might take to keep him.

Aware Karen was considering other jobs -- indeed, he accepted the athletics director's position in Georgia a few days after writing to O'Nan and began working there in July -- the newspapers requested copies of all of Karen's emails between May 9 and May 30 in which his current or future job plans were discussed.

When Foster gave Karen the stack of emails to review, Foster asked him to mark those he considered private, although he "was very clear he might or might not take my advice," Karen said.

Karen said his privacy didn't seem to be the district's sole concern, however.

Foster indicated to Karen there was debate at the district office about "whether they should just go ahead and let me say my whole, entire thing and let Truesdale say her whole, entire thing and get it all out there and just be done with it," Karen said. "I was like, that's fine with me."

Karen said he is uncertain who besides Foster participated in that debate.

Karen agreed to be interviewed for this story but answered questions only about the contents of the email and the manner in which the district handled it. He also declined to explain why he marked his letter as private or say whether he was pleased the newspapers had obtained it.

A POINTLESS EXERCISE?

Both Foster and Truesdale, who announced recently she will leave in October for a job with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district, acknowledge the superintendent knew about Karen's critical email before the records request was answered. However, both say she did not help decide what would be included and excluded. Foster added he never felt pressured to leave it out.

Truesdale typically does not participate in public-records requests, to avoid any appearance of impropriety, they said.

District risk manager Jennifer Staton and human resources chief Jackie Rosswurm say they reviewed some of the nearly 1,400 emails that Karen sent or received during the time period. Staton said she scanned them but didn't read them all and does not recall seeing Karen's email to O'Nan. Rosswurm didn't say for certain whether she saw Karen's letter to O'Nan, but she reviewed the documents that were sent to the newspapers, and it did not stand out to her that the letter was absent.

Neither participated in the final determination about what would be included or excluded, Foster said.

Foster signed the cover letter accompanying the emails the district eventually turned over and said he leaned heavily on the advice of the district's attorneys at Columbia-based Childs & Halligan in determining which of them to make public.

The firm's advice included asking Karen to designate the emails he considered private-- an exercise that Bender, the state press association attorney, called pointless.

Legal precedent is that the law's privacy exemption must be narrowly interpreted, according to Bender, who said it is "limited to disclosure of certain health issues and perhaps sexual preference, but certainly not job performance of a public employee."

Attempts Thursday and Friday to reach the Childs & Halligan attorney who advised the district were unsuccessful.

'ARROGANCE AND DUPLICITY'?

The district's justification for excluding the email is dubious for other reasons: The law states that if a document contains a mix of public information and information exempt from disclosure, the document should still be provided with the private portions blacked out.

That leaves the district with little justification for failing to provide at least a portion of the message, Bender said.

"This school district is doing what school districts all over the state do -- making up variants of the law to suit their own fancy and ignore what the law really says," Bender said.

Foster and Truesdale declined to identify passages in the email they believe meet the FOIA's privacy exemption.

Bender said their more recent handling of the email calls into question whether they really consider it private at all.

For instance, after supplying the newspapers with some documents but before he knew the newspapers already had a copy of Karen's email to O'Nan, Foster encouraged O'Nan to grant an interview with reporters about the school's attempt to retain Karen.

But the omitted email contained information O'Nan later discussed freely, including three requests the athletics director said might convince him to say. Those requests were help getting his child into a preschool program; an answer to a request by his wife, at the time a teacher in the district, to transfer to Hilton Head Island Elementary School; and a $12,000 raise.

O'Nan described each of the three requests nearly verbatim, declining only to say how much of a pay increase Karen requested.

Although Foster insists he considers Karen's email private, he still thinks it was appropriate to advise O'Nan to discuss part of it with reporters.

A few days later, the district went one step step further in making public the email it had labeled as private. At a meeting Wednesday attended by principals and assistant principals, copies of Karen's email were distributed. Along with it was a prepared statement by Truesdale -- entitled "Response to Island Packet," which had not yet published anything on the matter -- answering some of the criticism in Karen's letter.

"That just demonstrates the continued arrogance and duplicity of this crowd," Bender said.

O'Nan, who attended the meeting, said she thinks the email was distributed as a "teaching opportunity."

"People need to realize when you do something on school time on school property, it's public information," O'Nan said. "So when you send things on email, hello, you know, really. The world can read it."

Truesdale said in an email Friday she distributed Karen's letter because the newspapers already had indicated they planned to publish it and because Karen had disclosed it to one of their former sports writers, Sam McDowell.

McDowell did not provide a copy to the newspapers.

Karen said he sent Foster a text message Thursday after learning copies of his letter had been passed around the principals meeting: "If it was too private for the (Island Packet,) then why is it public enough for your leadership group? I'm not happy about this."

As of Friday afternoon, Karen said, Foster had not responded.

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